Children’s Books for Children

The publication recently of “Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s literature as an Adult,” (Simon & Schuster) by Bruce Handy, undoubtedly provokes in parents memories of their own favorites as children as well as those they have enjoyed – or not enjoyed reading to their children. Children’s “read it again” is sometimes daunting the tenth or twentieth time around no matter how much you appreciate the book as an adult.

One of my own strongest memories is that of “The Little Engine That Could,” the theme sentence, “I think I can, I think I can,” becoming a mantra for my children – it felt like forever. On the other hand, many books for children seem as though they would be frightening, with violence, monsters and being lost in the forest. Yet children like them.

The psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim, writes about that in his book, “The Uses of Enchantment,” in which he points out that fairy tales help children work through real life problems such as separation anxiety and sibling rivalry. The extreme violence and ugly emotions in such stories can serve to distance what may be going on in a child’s mind anyway. A child’s fears and feelings are expressed in stories that are not real, and can give voice to those fears and feelings in ways that are safe.

Perhaps the writer for whom those ideas most resonated was Maurice Sendak. “Where the Wild Things Are,” a story about a young boy who, after dressing in his wolf costume, wreaks such havoc through his household that he is sent to bed without his supper. His bedroom undergoes a mysterious transformation into a jungle environment, and he winds up sailing to an island inhabited by malicious beasts known as the “Wild Things.” After successfully intimidating the creatures, Max is hailed as the king of the Wild Things. However, he starts to feel lonely and decides to return home, to the Wild Things’ dismay. Upon returning to his bedroom, Max discovers a hot supper waiting for him.

Young children are plagued by the wild things inside them – like no self-control, or an impulse to strike out, which get them into trouble. How wonderful to turn into a wolf who can master those wild things, but as a child it is reassuring to return home and find a hot supper waiting.

Sendak came to know Art Spiegelman, who created a cartoon story called Maus, about the Holocaust. The two of them decided to do a collaborative comic strip about the nature of children’s fears. In the strip Sendak tells Spiegelman how adults don’t get what children are all about. “Childhood is cannibals and psychotics vomiting in your mouth.” He goes on to say, “I knew terrible things but I wouldn’t let adults know I knew – it would scare them.”

Sendak, himself, is quoted as saying that his books are about “how children master various feelings – danger, boredom, fear, frustration, jealousy – and manage to come to grips with the realities of their lives.” Yet “Wild Things” was banned from libraries for several years after it was written.

Handy calls his book, “Wild Things,” yet in some ways, as parents we still unrealistically try to protect children from the wild things that are happening in real life.  We find it hard to talk about things that we find upsetting, or that we are afraid would upset our children. Even things like the departure of a caregiver, illness in the family or the coming birth of a sibling may be glossed over in the mistaken idea that not talking about something will make it alright.

Perhaps, rereading children’s books as adults, can give us a deeper understanding of some of the issues children struggle with as they develop.